Shemini Atzeret inspires Joy and Gratitude

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Shemini Atzeret has a dual identity. It falls on the 8th day, immediately after Sukkot, a festival in its own right but without rituals. Yet, like Sukkot, our prayers refer to it as the Time of our Happiness (Zeman Simchateinu).

Following the 51 days of repentance from Elul until Hoshana Rabbah, and culminating in Sukkot, a universal festival for the nations of the world, Rashi informs us that Shemini Atzeret is a day of intimacy with the Almighty for the Israelites, before resuming their agrarian routines.

One tradition identified in the Talmud is to recite the Prayer for Rain (Tefillat Geshem) in the Shemini Atzeret Mussaf service. From ancient times, water was perceived as a precious resource for all living beings, even if in Britain we take it for granted. By contrast, from 2014-2019, Israel experienced a drought exceeding anything in its last 100 year history.

In a Mediterranean climate with few months of rain at best, Tefillat HaGeshem was a way to beseech G-d to provide precipitation during the winter months. When rains were delayed, leaders earnestly instituted a cumulative series of public fasts.

The 11th century Andalusian poet Solomon Ibn Gabirol beautifully articulated our dependence on rain in his poem Shifa’at Revivim. ‘Open now Your treasure, give life to all into whom You’ve breathed a soul, by causing the wind to blow and the rain to fall.’

The word Atzeret means ‘gathering’. It was a time for people to ascend to Jerusalem. Interestingly, we also refer to Shavuot as Hag HaAtseret. The Babylonian Talmud informs that just as Shavuot comes 50 days after Pesach, Shemini Atzeret was intended to come 50 days after Sukkot … but G-d had compassion on Jewish farmers, not requiring of them another pilgrimage during the rainy season.

For me, Shemini Atzeret inspires Joy and Gratitude. We seldom appreciate what we have until it’s absent or lost. The past months have shown how blessed we have been. As this year’s Mitzvah Day approaches, practicing Gratitude allows us to see things as they exist, not as we might wish them to be. Rather than lamenting what we’ve lost, Shemini Atzeret teaches us the dual lessons of finding joy in what we have and of being infinitely thankful for it.

Rabbi Jeff Berger can be reached at rabbijefflondon@gmail.com